Hollywood might be one of the most action-packed industries out today when it comes to diversity, with the possible exception of sports, pun intended.
With the recent and continuing Academy drama over the upcoming Oscars and its dearth of nominations of color, the critical commentary on the gender wage gap and various well-known faces lending their support, opinions or, in Meryl Streep’s case, a well-articulated dismissal, Hollywood is chock full of diversity dialogue. Some of it rather annoying.
I’m starting to wish these actors would just be quiet. I’m not serious. I absolutely don’t wish that, because that doesn’t work either.
Like many I was disappointed with Streep’s recent comments during a press conference to promote her first ever gig as jury president at the Berlin International Film Festival. At first, I was sure it was just the media’s sensational comment chopping at work. We do it, I admit it, slicing things down to sound bites and then splashing them everywhere for clicks and attention. But I’m a journalist and a member of the media, too, so I found the actual video of the controversial conversation so I could make my own assessment.
At first, Streep is cautious. Slowly and carefully choosing her words to outline her pro-position on inclusion and equality. She says, “This jury is evidence that at least women are included and in fact dominate this jury.” That “at least,” was for me, a subtle acknowledgement that the panel was a bit light — pun intended — on diversity. Maybe that’s not what she meant, I don’t know, but I suppose it doesn’t matter because then she screwed up.
As I said, I can only speculate on what she meant with her next comments, the shot heard ‘round the world: “We’re all Africans, really.” But I don’t know that one singular comment is really the point. For one thing, she’s not wrong. They say we all come from Africa. But that was a very long time ago, and this isn’t a conversation about scientific evolution or geography.
This isn’t some “let’s all be together” rally where we hold hands, shed a few tears and deep sighs, and come out with a new friend. That’s the point. This was an opportunity for a heavyweight to dig in and make an impact with her position on diversity and inclusion, and she basically chose not to.
But, to get so caught up in one statement, in one fragment of a sentence, is to completely miss out on the greater dialogue at work here. Questions about the lack of diversity in different scenarios are starting to pop up continuously because anything that is not diverse — including star-studded film jury panels — does not represent our world.
Streep emphasizing the humanity within us all sounds fabulous when issued in round, lovingly modulated tones, but people of color, people who exist outside the commonly accepted boundaries of society are tired of being sidelined in life, in film, in the workplace and everywhere else. To change that we need bigwigs people who wield power and hold influence over many, like Streep, to take a stand and demand deep, systemic, continual change.
Women and minorities are tired of working and not getting adequate compensation for our efforts. And I’m not just talking about salary, although that’s very important. I’m also talking about recognition, respect, promotion, opportunities for development, entry into previously unwelcoming employment areas — the list goes on and on.
Streep — a white woman of a certain age who has likely experienced some gender bias but whose incredible acting talent has undoubtedly insulated her from much of the abuse her female peers have had to deal with — appeared in this instance, in this video, to be done with the conversation. That’s unfortunate, but she has that luxury.
An Asian or Latina woman — even a headlining Asian or Latina actress — doesn’t have that same level of privilege attached to her skin. I know black women don’t, bigwig actresses or not. We definitely don’t have that automatic stamp of purity and femininity to offset the other forms of bias that will be lobbed at our heads and bodies.
I wish I could find the entire video of the press conference, but even without seeing it, I won’t condemn anyone who has publically stated that they value inclusion and all dimensions of diversity, which Streep has. That is actually quite a big step.
That sentiment might wear a bit thin for you. It might even seem like a repeat; it is. Much of what we talk about these days with regard to diversity and inclusion is. But the legal progress that has been made in the past few decades, the strides women and minorities have made toward the promised land of equality, just aren’t big enough. That’s why we can’t stunt this conversation.
In some ways, we’re still at the beginning of this road to equality. People are still making the case for diversity in business and film and elsewhere. Certain voices are just now being heard, and we need to hear them. We can’t be afraid to speak out, to say the wrong thing.
No one knows everything. I certainly don’t. This is a complicated problem. When people have the courage to directly address diversity, and do so in a respectful way, we can’t demonize them — even if they say something we don’t like.
This isn’t Stacey Dash saying ban Black History month and minority award shows. This isn’t Donald Trump accusing Mexicans of rape or some other craziness. To pounce on Meryl Streep for this seems like a lot of misplaced energy. It certainly doesn’t help. It actually hurts because others might be too fearful to speak out, and without open and honest communication, strategic diversity management — whether it’s in the workplace, on the stage, on a ball field or on a big silver screen — will stall, be misdirected, and the people who need it most, myself included, will continue to suffer.
We have to be a bit more responsible in how we conduct the business of inclusion. Words have power. Meryl Streep just got a serious reminder of that very important fact.